Ireland’s Security Policy is Being Damaged by Abuses in its Defence Forces


A recently published report has exposed a corrosive culture within the Irish military, particularly with regard to the treatment of female members. Failure to address this problem will have wide-reaching repercussions.

In a country where national security debates are often low-key, it is seldom that news of the Irish Defence Forces (DF) makes the front pages of Ireland’s national newspapers. This trend has reversed in recent weeks, starting in late March 2023 with the publication of the Report of the Independent Review Group (IRG) on Dignity and Equality Issues in the Defence Forces. The IRG was formed in response to allegations of gender discrimination, sexual violence and other abuses disclosed by the Women of Honour group of retired DF members to the Irish media in 2021. Appointed by the Irish government in 2022, the IRG comprised senior legal experts tasked with examining ‘issues relating to sexual misconduct, bullying, harassment and discrimination in the Defence Forces’. The IRG was chaired by Ms Justice Bronagh O’Hanlon, a retired Irish High Court judge. Marking another damning chapter in DF’s recent development, the IRG was heavily critical of DF’s approach to female members in particular, reporting that many complaints of ‘sexual assault, bullying and harassment’ within its ranks have been inadequately addressed.

Lessons Unlearned

The IRG solicited a broad range of testimonies from serving and retired DF members. Its final report contained many harrowing details. Many accounts portrayed gender discrimination as prevalent; some testimonies discussed sexual assault and/or other physical and psychological abuses suffered in the military workplace. Individual testimonies corresponded with survey data highlighting ‘88% of female respondents experiencing one or more forms of sexual harassment and that 46% reported experiencing unwanted physical contact/sexual assault’. According to the report, this corrosive culture is not only historical, but a problem that persists. Irish media has also reported intimidation of male DF members in reprisal for workplace complaints of sexual abuse. Many IRG respondents expressed little confidence in the military’s justice system. Some saw ‘no point’ in formalising a complaint. The IRG damningly summarised that ‘the Defence Forces barely tolerates women and, at its worst, verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses women in its ranks’.

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If Irish defence governance remains unscrutinised after the IRG report, it will likely be a mistake that materialises in another painful controversy for Irish national security in the future

The report received widespread coverage in the Irish media. Some IRG findings have also been covered by high-profile international media outlets. Defence analyst Declan Power points out that other Western militaries have been affected by similar scandals, later redeeming themselves with subsequent reforms. However, what is most disappointing about the IRG report is that Ireland has been here before. Past warnings have ultimately gone unheeded. In 2000, Captain Tom Clonan was awarded his PhD for a thesis ‘on the status and roles assigned to female personnel in the Permanent Defence Forces’. Undertaken with approval from the general staff, his research highlighted regular abuse of female DF members similar to the behaviour identified in the IRG report 23 years later. Instead of being praised for uncovering serious military failings, some DF personnel exploited their power and engaged in whistleblower reprisal. Clonan’s research prompted a broader inquiry examining abuse within DF in 2001. The Independent Monitoring Group (IMG) was subsequently appointed in 2002 ‘to oversee the implementation of recommendations’ designed to prevent ‘harassment, bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment’ within DF. The IMG produced three reports; the last one was published in 2014, after which this valuable process was discontinued. The Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces was created in 2004 as an independent body to examine workplace complaints in DF and from civil servants in the Department of Defence (DoD).

Reaction to IRG Findings

Cathal Berry, an independent Member of Parliament (Teachta Dála), has raised numerous problems in Irish defence policy since his election to Dáil Éireann in 2020. Previously second-in-command of DF’s elite special forces unit, the Army Ranger Wing, Berry insists that the ‘priority must be to support victims and to prosecute individual perpetrators [of abuse]’ within DF. He emphasises that ‘the majority of Defence Forces personnel conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion’. Describing the IRG as ‘a scoping exercise rather than a fact-finding inquiry’, Berry argues that the process indicated more shortcomings in Ireland’s defence governance linking DF, DoD and the wider political system. DF is subject to particularly stringent civilian authority even when compared to civil-military relations in other Western democracies. Following Berry’s reminder that ‘the military doesn’t make its own rules’, if the wider civilian and military confluence that is Irish defence governance remains unscrutinised after the IRG report, it will likely be a mistake that materialises in another painful controversy for Irish national security in the future.

Published in 2022, the Commission on Defence Forces (CoDF) report recommended a significant overhaul of DF command. Statements from DF leadership after the IRG report provide further grounds for scrutinising interaction levels between command and the wider DF organisation. Accepting the IRG’s findings, Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Seán Clancy said that beyond ‘standard disciplinary impacts’ he was unaware of the extent of the corrosive culture discussed in the report. Clancy’s DF career began in 1984. This might hint at some problematic incohesion between senior commanders and DF’s rank and file. Some reforms planned after the earlier CoDF report emphasised improvements in Human Resource Management (HRM). A new civilian Head of Transformation position to advise DF leadership mostly on HRM matters is being introduced. Irish commentary on the IRG report has largely centred on DF’s HRM situation. Parallel discussion of the foreign and security policy repercussions of DF’s organisational failings has been curiously limited.

Foreign and Security Policy Repercussions

The IRG report coincides with DF’s already severe recruitment and retention crisis. Figures reported in February 2023 show that its strength has dropped to under 8,000 personnel, significantly below the agreed capacity of 9,500. A government plan announced in 2022 to increase actual personnel to 11,500 by 2028 now looks farfetched. On top of inadequate soldier pay and conditions, the IRG’s conclusion that ‘neither men nor women in the Defence Forces are working in a safe working environment’ risks denting any recruitment or retention revival. Meanwhile, Ireland’s national security vulnerabilities continue to be laid bare. In late March/early April 2023, a group of Russian-registered commercial vessels including a salvage ship and a repair vessel caused further concern for the security of undersea telecommunications infrastructure in the North Atlantic. With equipment capable of causing disruption suspected to be onboard, this fleet dwelled ominously close to infrastructure located within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Due to serious staffing shortages, Ireland’s Naval Service was unable to increase patrols to better monitor this activity, let alone deter it as a possible unconventional or ‘hybrid’ threat. This was followed by the presence of Russian naval vessels in the Irish EEZ in early May 2023, with claims that further manoeuvres signalling threats to undersea infrastructure were carried out.

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Well below its agreed strength, DF is stretched to breaking point, but it remains relied upon as the frontline organisation serving Ireland’s overseas commitments

Ireland remains a ‘weak link’ for Western European security, but Dublin sometimes highlights its long-term contributions to UN peacekeeping as partially compensating for this by contributing to security elsewhere. This logic supported Ireland’s election to the UN Security Council from 2021 until 2022. The IRG report criticised DF for allowing too many ‘hypermasculinities’ to marginalise female members. Power points out that military ‘warrior culture’ is difficult to transform, but a strict traditional ‘warrior culture’ rarely matches the Irish government’s vision for DF. An ethos that emphasises peacekeeping dominates over warfighting, as retired Sergeant Major Noel O’Callaghan explains: ‘we’re [DF] life savers, we’re not like takers’. Peacekeeping is a significant foreign policy asset for Dublin, but even then, serious concerns can be inferred from the IRG report. Well below its agreed strength, DF is stretched to breaking point, but it remains relied upon as the frontline organisation serving Ireland’s overseas commitments. Falling badly behind on national defence, Irish leaders can still be interpreted as taking pride in DF as a ‘postmodern military’ adept at expeditionary peace support.

For military sociologist Charles Moskos, traditional or ‘modern’ militaries are ‘masculine in makeup and ethos, and sharply differentiated in structure and culture from civilian society’; conversely, ‘postmodern’ militaries become ‘increasingly androgynous [mixed gender] in makeup and ethos, and [have] more permeability with civilian society’. Former Minister of Defence Simon Coveney highlighted the need for DF to recruit more female personnel to enhance peacekeeping operations. According to retired Captain Deirdre Carbery, mixed gender peacekeeping patrols often gain ‘greater access to the [local] population’ in some cultures, and might thus better support stronger local consent for UN missions. However, by late 2022, only 7% of DF members were women, reinforcing the wide gulf between the often problematic traditional military culture that Ireland has and the progressive ‘postmodern’ military that Irish leaders want. The IRG report sent another loud reminder that a structural overhaul of DF is essential. As a glimmer of optimism that generational change could foster positive transformation, current mid-rank officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) might be more likely to hold attitudes better reflecting wider liberal change in Irish society. However, progress here is again risked by DF’s retention crisis, with too many of its talented members leaving prematurely.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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WRITTEN BY

Eoin Micheál McNamara

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